University of Maryland professor’s extra credit problem goes viral

WASHINGTON — A University of Maryland psychology teacher’s mind-bending extra credit offer is pretty much blowing up the Internet.

Dylan Selterman told his social psychology students that they could earn either two points or six points of extra credit on their final papers. Of course, there was a catch: If more than 10 percent of the class chose six points, nobody in the class would get the extra credit.

Selterman said this is something he’s been doing since 2008. Think of it as a real-time example of the tragedy of the commons — the dilemma of acting in one’s own self-interest versus acting for the greater good of the group.  So far, only one class has managed to get the extra credit (FYI: It wasn’t this year’s).

Then weeks ago, an exasperated student tweeted  “WHAT KIND OF PROFESSOR DOES THIS.”

“I am that professor,”  Selterman tweeted back days later.

Then, The Baltimore Sun picked up the story, and eventually so did BuzzFeed, Mashable and USA TODAY, and many others. And now a full-on debate rages on social media. Should an entire group be made to suffer because of the selfish acts of the few?

Selterman said that he didn’t expect any of this to blow up on social media, but he says it’s a good thing. “I think it opens up the discussion on game theory and what’s going on here psychologically,” Selterman said to WTOP.

More often than not, when presented with the prospect of gain, Selterman said, people will try to maximize the individual benefit, even if it risks harming others. They just hope enough people won’t be as selfish. He used water as an example — what happens if too many people exploit the resource?

Asked if he’ll keep the question in coming years, despite all the attention it has received in the news and on social media, Selterman said, “Oh, yes.”

“I don’t think that it will significantly change the outcome,” Selterman said. “Even if it did, it’s a significant victory, people working in cooperation toward a common goal.”

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